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November 2007
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January 2008

Dec. 31, 2007


Senegal, though not without its many problems, has been one of the more politically and religiously stable countries in Africa (it's where my stepdaughter and her husband spent time in the Peace Corps just a few years ago). But now the country is in mourning over the death of an important Muslim leader. For a Reuters fact sheet about the situation there, click here. Our hope should be that international Islamic radicals don't try to use this situation as a wedge to spread their destructive messages.

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Let's end this goofball year on a silly note with some semi-decent religious humor. Well, I says semi-decent but, of course, as usual, you will be the judge of that.

LaughingfaceRegular readers of this blog know that these jokes aren't original. Some come from, some from you and some from

So let's send 2007 off with a laugh:

1. How do we know that Adam was a Mennonite? Who else would be alone in a garden with a naked woman and be tempted by a piece of fruit?

2. A priest walked into a barber shop in Washington, D.C. After he got his haircut he asked the price. The barber said, "No charge. I consider it a service to the Lord."

The next morning the barber came to work and there were 12 prayer books and a thank you note from the priest in front of the door.

Later that day a copy came in a got his hair cut. When he asked how much, the barber said, "No charge. I consider it a service to the community."

The next morning there were a dozen donuts and a thank you not from the police officer.

Then a senator came in a got a haircut. He asked how much and was told, "No charge. I consider it a service to the country.

The next morning when the barber came to work there were 12 senators in front of the door.

3. After a long, dry sermon one Sunday the minister announced that he wished to meet with the church board. But the first person to show up was a stranger.

"You must have misunderstood my announcement," the pastor said, "This is to be a meeting of the board."

"I know," said the man. "And if there is anyone here more bored than I am I'd like to meet him.

4. A rabbincal student is about to leave for America. So he asks his mentor for advice. The man told him something he said would get him through the rest of life: "Always remember that life is like a fountain."

Deeply impressed, the man headed off for a successful career in America.

Thirty years later, he learned that the old rabbi was dying, so he returned to him for a final visit.

"Rabbi," he said, "for 30 years whenever I've needed wisdom to live by I've returned to what you told me. But, to be honest, I'm not sure I've ever fully understood what you meant when you said that life is like a fountain. Now that you're near the end, I wonder if you could tell me why life is like a fountain."

The old man replied, wearily, "Oh, all right, so life isn't like a fountain."

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Dec. 29-30, 2007, weekend


Has there been too much religion in the presidential race? This piece from the Christian Science Monitor raises that question. But take notice, too, of the interesting sidebars about the faith of the major candidates.

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P.S. (EARLY): Speaking of Iowa, which you have to this week if you're talking presidential politics, I'm not saying the Iowa caucuses are the cause, but there's a growing demand for caskets, and Trappist monks in Iowa are meeting it. Imagine that.

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The questions of how religious and moral concerns should affect political stances and actions are not limited just to American presidential politics, of course.

JialogoRather, religious questions seem to affect statecraft the world over. And a publication attached to the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs has focused on all of this in its current issue. The Journal of International Affairs contains essays on various aspects of the relationship between religion and statecraft.

The link I've given you will not, however, give you access to the full text of each article. You have to buy a copy of the journal for that. But it will give you a pretty good pdf chunk of the pieces to give you a feel for where the authors are going.

Sometimes people surprise me when they tell me that we are in a new era in terms of the way religion affects politics, both domestically and internationally. Clearly they haven't read much history. It's hard to find a period in history -- either American history or the history of the world -- when religion didn't play a pretty substantial role in determining the course of events and the thinking behind it.

It's true that at times we seem less able to recognize the influence of religious thought in political matters, so the period since 9/11 has been particularly noteworthy in turning our attention back to all of this. But if you wrote a religious history of the world, you'd inevitably also cover most of the major world developments that get included in any good history book.

So take a glance at what's available of these essays in the JIA publication and tell me what you learned.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.(My Saturday column this weekend is full of fearless and amazing predictions for the religious world in 2008.)

Dec. 28, 2007


In light of the assassination yesterday of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, who had made lots of enemies among Islamic militants, I thought you might gain a little perspective about the country by knowing more of its religious leanings. So for the religious section of the Library of Congress' Pakistan "Country Studies" report, click here. This entry at offers some of the same information but adds a little, too. At the site, you'll find this information about religion in Pakistan. Click here for the 2007 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, then scroll down to page 245 for Pakistan, noting that it begins this way: "Sectarian and religiously motivated violence persist in Pakistan. . ." Finally, click here for the U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom in Pakistan.

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I had heard about some group called the Perennialists, but until a friend recently passed on to me an Utne Reader piece about this approach to faith, I didn't know much more than the name.

Rene_guenon__frithjof_schuonThe piece by Jon Spayde describes Perennialism as a "tendency in religious thought that was set in motion by an idosyncratic French writer named Rene Guenon (1886-1951), developed by Frithjof Schuon (1907-09), and is fostered today by a small group of writers, philosophers, and professors of comparative religion." (Guenon is pictured here on the left and Frithjof is pictured on the right.)

Perennialism rejects much of the modern world but it believes that "all religions are part of one great religion; that all wisdom makes up a great river of truth that all modern people should return to for what the Gospels call 'living water.'"

This approach, also called Traditionalism, suggests that all religions point to one God. But it's not enough to be outside of one of the religions. Rather, Perennialists say, one must be committed to a religious tradition.

Well, it's impossible to describe a rather complex religious approach in just these few paragraphs and probably unfair to try.

But the Utne piece will give you an introduction. And a sidebar in the Utne piece says you can get lots of Perennialist thinking online at, and the Foundation for Traditional Studies and at World Wisdom, a publisher of Perennialist writing.

What do you make of this movement? I'm not yet sure quite how to view it.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be full of fearless and amazing predictions for the religious world in 2008.)

Today's religious holiday: Holy Innocents (Christianity)

Dec. 27, 2007


The history of how presidential politics gets affected by religious concerns goes back a long ways. This column in the Jerusalem Post offers some perspective on all of that. And it makes me wonder where all of this will go in 2008, which is coming to a calendar near you in just five days.

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If you have ever served on a committee of your faith community -- especially those that deal with matters beyond the congregational level -- you know that the process of decision making can be agonizingly slow.

Unityicon3One reason is that people tend to be remarkably cautious about changing precedent and about making sure that they're not simply charging off into new directions without adequate preparation. Still, things often move so slowly that it can be enormously frustrating.

An example of what I'm talking about can be seen in the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Several weeks ago it issued another statement, one in a series dating back several decades.

Reading the statement's 46 points will give you a pretty good sense of how this group has proceeded over the years. It has not been without some progress as commission members have moved toward healing the division between East and West that became formal in 1054 in what's called the Great Schism. But the two churches seem only slightly closer to anything that could be called unification or final agreement.

This most recent statement -- though it would take you quite a bit of reading and time to realize it -- finally has to do with the papacy and whether the Bishop of Rome has primacy over all other bishops in the church. Sections 45 and 46 deal with that directly. In essence, they say that there is disagreement about this and more study is needed.

But Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said in an interview with Vatican Radio that it was a "real breakthrough" that Orthodox representatives were willing to talk about how church authority is exercised at the universal level.

Clearly, as I've said, all of this does not mean the churches are ready to reconcile in a full way. But I'm in favor of any serious move toward unity. If the Orthodox and Catholics can find a way to do it, maybe there's a little hope that the atomized Protestant world finally can achieve more unity -- which, by the way, is different from (and much better than) uniformity.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Dec. 26, 2007


The archbishop of Canterbury says human greed threatens the globe. Yes, the globe, and probably Santa Claus, too. How long can the old boy hold up?

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I keep telling people to go to funerals every chance they get. Funerals tend to focus the mind. They put life in perspective. And now and then you get a surprise, such as the funeral some years ago for a journalist colleague. The service ended with circus music and firecrackers right there in a church sanctuary.

FlowersI was in that same sanctuary the other day for the funeral of a 95-year-old man who was the father of a good friend. A few days before that I attended a funeral of a 79-year-old woman who was a member of my church.

In both cases, I came away thinking about how important the legacy is we leave behind. And when are we creating that legacy. Yesterday and today. And, if we have it, tomorrow.

The man who died had been instrumental in the founding of a church in the 1940s, though he was not a member of the clergy. And he gave back to his community in countless other ways, including serving for quite a while on the city council of his town.

The woman who died was known for her devotion to her dogs and for being utterly dependable in countless ways. For instance, she would show up at our church every Monday morning to do a variety of tasks that helped to wrap up a busy Sunday and move the congregation into the week.

I can't imagine anyone who attended either service not making a silent pledge to try harder to make the world a better place and to be a faithful member of his or her faith community. Sometimes we need to hear the stories of such people to keep us on the right path.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holidays: Zarathosht Diso, or Death of Prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroastrianism); St. Stephen's Day (Christianity)

Dec. 25, 2007


And in Bethlehem, it was a good Christmas, this report says.

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Merry Christmas to you and yours.

                                Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

                           Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

                                                                Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

                                    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

                                                                             Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

And come back tomorrow for something less repetitive but no less heartfelt.

Today's religious holiday (in case the clues above weren't enough): Christmas (Christianity); Feast of the Nativity (Orthodox Christianity)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Dec. 24, 2007


Muslim scholars plan to stand against radical Islam by issuing a Christmas letter to Christians, this report says. Good. This kind of thing can't happen often enough.

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When I was a child, we almost always made a Christmas trip to see my grandparents. My maternal grandparents lived about 100 miles south of us, while my paternal set was almost 100 miles further south than the first set.

Santa_lucia1But there was another reason to go to the maternal grandparents' house first. Christmas Eve was my grandmother's birthday. Born in Sweden, she and my grandfather, also a native of Sweden, brought with them some of their Swedish holiday customs, the most important of which, as far as I was concerned, was wonderful idea that we got to open all our presents on Christmas Eve -- though only after we celebrated Grandma's birthday.

This custom, over the years, has made me interested in how Christmas is celebrated differently in various countries. In some ways I regret that my grandparents didn't teach us much about the Swedish custom of Santa Lucia, such as the model pictured here. I would have enjoyed seeing my sisters' hair go up in flames, I think.

So today, I simply give you this link, which will give you lots of information about that very thing. The variety is quite amazing, actually. It's another bit of evidence that often local culture shapes the practice of even global religions.

So, if you're of a mind, learn a bit today about international Christmas customs. And then, if you are Christian, tell us your own customs and whether they are somehow attached to immigrants and the ideas they brought with them.

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P.S.: In case you missed Tony Blair's conversion to Catholicism, the Vatican was reported to be pleased. Not much of a surprise -- either the conversion or the Vatican's reaction.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Dec. 22-23, 2007, weekend


As the Hajj ends, Muslims say they wish it could last longer. But, of course, one reason it's so special to them is that it doesn't last forever. In that way, it's like life.

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Sounding more tolerant of other religions than I remember him being in the past, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia says people of different religions should cooperate and act according to common moral values. Maybe we can look forward to a time when the Wahhabi Sunni leaders there might even tolerate the Shia minority in the country. Or not.

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For as long as I can remember, I've been an opponent of the death penalty. Indeed, for several years I wrote the anti-death penalty editorials that appeared in The Kansas City Star.

ElectricchairI used to think I needed no other warrant for this position than the section of the Ten Commandments that says, simply, "Thou shalt not kill." But I soon realized that was not only a simplistic but also an inconsistently literalistic reading of the text. I was doing what I sometimes think others do, which is to pick out certain passages to read literally and to ignore others I'd rather not interpret that way.

As time has evolved, my opposition to the death penalty has, too. I now give several reasons for opposing it, including:

* The reality that sometimes our criminal justice system gets it wrong and we convict people who either are innocent or who have been denied proper legal rights. The possibility that the state would execute an innocent person is reason enough to oppose capital punishment.

* Human life is to be valued, not destroyed. For the safety of society, it may be, and sometimes is, necessary to lock someone up for life. But destroying human life as a punishment for destroying human life lowers the state to the level of the criminal.

* The reality that sometimes people can be redeemed. I know of a man still in prison right now who I believe has been redeemed, though so far that state's parole board is unwilling to grant him release after several decades behind bars. Execute someone and the chance to redeem his or her life -- unless you're talking about eternal salvation -- is gone.

* The death penalty process is, in the long run, more expensive than jailing someone for life. And the government should care about efficient spending of public dollars, though it often seems not to.

There are more reasons (including racial disparity), but for those and others I was glad recently when New Jersey abolished the death penalty there.

I have a friend -- a Trappist monk and Catholic priest -- who is an officer with a group called Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty and who has worked tirelessly to move Missouri toward ridding itself of this barbaric system. At the moment, the group is pushing for a three-year moratorium of scheduled executions so that there can be an official investigation of sentencing practices in the state and the effects of the death penalty. I hope we can start there and then move toward abolition.

Do you have religious reasons for opposing or favoring the death penalty?

P.S.: And speaking of the death penalty, click here to read a report from John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter about Catholic contributions to the recent vote in the United Nations in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Saturday marks the start of the fourth year of this blog. Thanks for being along for the ride. Anything you missed is in the archives.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about finding the core of Christmas and other religious holidays.)

ALSO: If you want to give my book, A Gift of Meaning, as a holiday gift, you can order it from by clicking here or directly from the University of Missouri Press by clicking here.

Dec. 21, 2007


A Notre Dame professor says he thinks he's got a pretty good guess as to what the Christmas star was that, the New Testament says, guided the wisemen to the Christ child. Well, at least I like his notion better than the idea that it was Wal-Mart Fireworks Night at Bethlehem Stadium.

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How do you know if you're in the right church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other group broadly referred to as a faith community?

ChurchesWell, in some ways that depends on your view of how such groups come together and your view of the God such groups worship.

In the Reformed Tradition of Christianity, which is where I locate myself, the view of church is that God calls the church together. Thus, it is not a voluntary organization like the Rotary Club, say. Rather, in some mysterious way it is the result of people responding to God's urging. That may explain why in any church, pretty much, you will find people who don't necessarily even like each other all that much. Or who, at least, would not have chosen certain people in the congregation if they had been in charge of who gets to belong.

All of this is leading up to giving you a link to a piece in which the author suggests that God may want you to leave your church and find another one. To me, this piece, excerpted from a book, reflects fairly common thinking among people in independent churches, that is, churches without any specific denominational ties or at least loose ties.

This kind of approach would be pretty uncommon among members of Orthodox and Catholic churches. And I, frankly, am bothered by the idea of church shopping as if we're customers to be satisfied rather than humble worshipers seeking to be obedient to the call of God.

But I'd love tohear your thinking about when and why one should change faith communities. (My rule, essentially, is that if one is a member of a church that has run amok theologically or has become apostate in some way, one should try hard to fix it from the inside. That failing -- and I'm not talking about giving it a week or three -- one should look elsewhere. But the time to be discerning about where you fit best is before you join.)

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P.S.: Speaking of kissing a congregation goodbye, what about kissing a whole religion goodbye and another one hello? That's what's happened in southern Illinois, where 55 mostly poor African-Americans have converted to Judaism. It's quite a remarkable change -- and one that seems to have been done carefully and after several years of study.

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To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about finding the core of Christmas and other religious holidays.)

ALSO: If you want to give my book, A Gift of Meaning, as a holiday gift, you can order it from by clicking here or directly from the University of Missouri Press by clicking here.

Today's religious holidays: Yule (Christian); Yule (Wicca/Neo Pagan, Northern Hemisphere); Litha (Wicca/Neo Pagan, southern Hemisphere); St. Thomas Day (Christian)

Dec. 20, 2007


A government minister in Pakistan says terrorism only hurts Islam, a point he said the top religious leader in Saudi Arabia was making in his Hajj sermon. This is the type of message that should be coming from all of Islam's leaders more often.

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How many of you think of God as "the God of the desert"?

Gr075That's how essayist and author Richard Rodriguez describes God in the lead piece in this issue of Harper's Magazine in a piece called "The God of the Desert: Jerusalem and the ecology of monotheism."

The God described by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he says, "revealed Himself in the desert. My curiosity about an ecology that joins three desert religions dates from September 11, 2001, from prayers enunciated in the sky over America on that day."

I like the essays that Rodriguez has produced for PBS. And I like much of his writing. In this particular piece, I had the sense that he was purposefully disjointed, intentionally trying something a little abstract, a little hard to make whole. And, just in terms of style, I'm not sure it worked all that well.

Nonetheless, in it he wrote some insightful and true things. I can't give you a link to the whole piece unless you're a Harper's subscriber, in which case you don't need a link. But the piece is worth reading in its entirety if you can put your hands on a printed copy.

I'll quote just a bit of it:

* "The theme of Jerusalem is division. Friday, Saturday, Sunday. The city has been conquered, destroyed, rebuilt, garrisoned, halved, quartered, martyred, and exalted -- always the object of spiritual desire; always the prize; always the corrupt model of the eventual city of God."

* ". . . The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. If God is on our side, we must be right. We are right because we believe in God. We must defend God against the godless. Certitude clears a way for violence."

There is much more, but that will give you a flavor. Kurt Vonnegut once said that people go to church mostly to daydream about God. I'm not sure that's right, but this Rodriquez essay will give you cause at least to ponder the divine and our place in the cosmos. And, really, what other subjects are there?

Today's religious holiday: Eid al  Adha (Islam)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

ALSO: If you want to give my book, A Gift of Meaning, as a holiday gift, you can order it from by clicking here or directly from the University of Missouri Press by clicking here.